Facing a $3 million-plus shortfall in its special education budget this year, the school board has endorsed a plan to identify and help students who may be challenged but who are not necessarily in need of special education services.
By intervening early, and providing more focused instruction for students with problems such as reading disabilities or speech impediments, the district hopes to reduce its referrals to special education contractors, and hopefully control its costs.
"The idea being that as you support those kids and strengthen those basic skills, you would have fewer children who would need to receive special education services," said Steve Gingras, director of special education for the district. "We don't want any child identified for special education because we didn't serve then adequately. It should be for specific learning disabilities."
Intervention involves teachers giving students more individualized lesson plans if the student is having trouble learning in class. It used to be that if a student was having trouble, a teacher would automatically refer him or her to special education, rather than looking more closely at alternative methods.
Now, if a student is having trouble learning how to read, for example, a teacher might utilize more visual aids to teach the child, Gingras said. The teacher will try out more individualized lessons for several weeks to see if learning improves. If it doesn't, the teacher will refer the student to a small-group learning environment with another teacher who specializes in at-risk students. The student will attend class in that setting for another several weeks.
If those intervention methods still don't work, the teacher will then refer the student to special education.
High cost for special ed
This year the district expects to spend $7.5 million for the 560 students who qualify for special services, according to Craig Goldman, the district's chief financial officer. Some $4 million of that total comes from state and federal sources, and the rest, about $3.3 million, from the district.
Last year the district spent $7.5 million for special education, and the year before, 2005-06, $7.2 million, according to Goldman. The number of students diagnosed as autistic — and therefore requiring special schooling — jumped from three to 32 students, which has contributed to the increase in expenditures, Gingras said.
On average the district spends slightly more than $13,000 per special-education student. Depending on their needs, the costs can range from $3,000 to $80,000 per student over and above money spent for a general-education student, according to district officials. General education students receive about $5,500 each, officials said.
Special education students with more severe disabilities receive instruction outside the district at Pine Hill or Lucille Packard Children's Hospital schools. This kind of extra-district schooling, along with salaries, makes up the highest special education costs, district officials said.
By law a student can receive special education services if he or she fits into one of a variety of categories, including visual impairment, orthopedic impairment, autism, speech and language impairment and mental retardation, Gingras said.
The district is not trying to avoid federal law requirements, he said, but is trying to make sure that the students who receive special education are the ones who really need it.